Tea Leaf Nation

The Chinese Democratic Experiment that Never Was

Hong Kong protesters get most of the press, but the latest conflict in Wukan means more to mainlanders.

Zhang Bincha, a 44-year old resident of Wukan, cheers after voting in village elections on March 3, 2012. Residents of a small village in China went to the polls in a leadership election being hailed as a milestone for those demanding more say in the running of the one-party state. AFP PHOTO/Peter PARKS (Photo credit should read PETER PARKS/AFP/Getty Images)
Zhang Bincha, a 44-year old resident of Wukan, cheers after voting in village elections on March 3, 2012. Residents of a small village in China went to the polls in a leadership election being hailed as a milestone for those demanding more say in the running of the one-party state. AFP PHOTO/Peter PARKS (Photo credit should read PETER PARKS/AFP/Getty Images)

Protesters in southern China are up in arms. They feel that Beijing’s promises that they’d be able to vote for their own local leaders have been honored in the breach. They’re outraged at the show of force in the face of peaceful protest, and confronted with superior government might, they are using the power of numbers and the reach of social media to make their voices heard.

Readers would be forgiven for thinking the above to be a description of Hong Kong, where pro-democracy protests in October 2014 and a subsequent independence movement have captured global attention. But it also depicts Wukan, a small mainland Chinese village about a three and-a-half-hour drive east of the former British colony. In December 2011, it became a global symbol for a new style of Chinese governance when a citizen uprising against illegal land seizures and a brief exercise in self-rule during a police blockade elicited promises of village-level democratization from Beijing. Now citizen unrest is making headlines once again.

The latest round of unrest began after erstwhile protest leader Lin Zulian, who had governed as popularly elected village secretary since 2012, was detained on a June evening. Shortly before, Lin had pledged renewed demonstrations calling for restitution for improper land grabs. Western media described “tensions” growing thereafter; on June 18, public security in Lufeng, the municipality that contains Wukan, issued an official order calling on villagers not to let “illegal elements” imperil the village’s “hard-won stability.” On Sept. 8, the verdict came down: Lin was sentenced to 37 months in prison and a fine of about $30,000 for bribery and kickbacks totaling about $88,000; he has pledged not to appeal. (Although Lin confessed to receiving kickbacks, many Wukan residents told NPR they thought it was staged.)

On Sept. 13, after what appear to have been days of street-level protests in Wukan, riot police descended on the village of about 13,000, arresting 13 on suspicions of disturbing public order, a charge commonly used against protesters in China. Photos circulated on social media also claim to show villagers injured by police; one widely-shared video depicts armored forces retreating under a hail of debris from angry citizens.

Wukan’s villagers may be heartened to know their concerns have become international news, but their likely aim is China’s domestic audience, which is far better positioned to put lasting pressure on Beijing. Predictably, China’s government has reacted with an information blockade. State media mentions of the septuagenarian Lin have been brief; stripped of context that might help viewers understood what he originally stood for, they sound like just another news item about a corrupt local cadre. Social media dispatches from the village have been censored for months. And police have threatened to investigate and punish internet users who spread “false information” about Wukan.

That means that most mainland Chinese have likely not heard much, or any, recent scuttlebutt about Wukan, leaving it to social media users to hunt for anything they can find. “The watermelon seed-eating masses probably really don’t know” the full story, quipped one user on Weibo. “Not many people understand what’s really going on,” wrote another, “but everyone can feel what the authorities are doing in the pit of their stomachs.”

Weibo commenters on Wukan have been largely unsparing toward their central government. “Truly, the wisdom of the leaders isn’t something the grassroots can understand. It’s easier and more efficient to arrest the person who pointed out the problem than to solve the problem,” wrote one. Another fumed that “the biggest landlords are the Chinese Communist Party and corrupt businesspeople like Wang Jianlin,” a billionaire developer who has been an outspoken advocate for Beijing’s policies.

Others took issue with the legal process itself. One Weibo user wrote, “When I read those words, ‘according to law,’ it makes me want to laugh.” Another noted the absurdity of sending Lin to prison for 37 months for $88,000 in bribes and kickbacks when high officials have been caught with millions or even hundreds of millions in ill-gotten gains.

The volume of Wukan chatter on Chinese media is surely lower than what its residents might want. Yet they may currently rank among some of the most prominent activists in the country. Erstwhile opinion leaders on social media have gone silent; rights lawyers who blogged to raise awareness for their clients have been punished harshly. And while Hong Kong’s youth-driven pro-democracy protests in late 2014 won widespread admiration in the west, mainland netizens have been far less sympathetic. Many mainlanders resent Hong Kong activists’ call for independence from the mainland, and think Hong Kongers, who live better than most mainlanders, to be spoiled. For their part, Hong Kongers decry both Beijing’s meddling and the large influx of mainland tourists. Some city residents have even taken to calling mainlanders “locusts.”

None of these long-simmering issues afflict the image of Wukan, a modest fishing village of about 20,000. Its citizen complaints are easier for mainland Chinese to understand. The core of Hong Kongers’ complaint is Beijing’s increasing meddling in an (admittedly imperfect) democratic process that Hong Kong already enjoyed; in Wukan, the bugbear is uncompensated land grabs by the local government, a widespread revenue-raising tactic that has become a neuralgic complaint among villagers across China. Unlike Hong Kong demonstrators, Wukan activists from the start stressed their loyalty to the Communist Party, insisting their protest was patriotic.

Those bullish on the prospects for Chinese democratic reform have long viewed its village-level experiments as a hopeful harbinger — in 1997, the non-profit Carter Center called them a “serious and positive development in empowering China’s 900 million villagers.” (Many have since moved to cities.) Wukan’s own democratic experiment was initially hailed as an exciting “new start” by many Chinese observers. The 2012 vote proceeded smoothly (one happy participant is pictured above). But Wukan villagers never got back the land, or the cash equivalents, that they’d sought. More generally, because the ruling Communist party prescreens village candidates, their change-making potential is limited, and “corrupt incumbents representing entrenched interests often stay in office,” according to an Oct. 2015 article in Foreign Affairs.

Chinese authorities’ evident deployment of riot police looks both brutal and clumsy, especially when wielded against villagers who showed in 2011 that they know how to use social media to court national and international attention. But the messy and visible failure of Wukan’s truncated democratic experiment may be something China’s leadership can countenance, squaring as it does with Beijing’s insistence that democracy foments chaos and disorder. This latest strike may also deter uprisings in villages elsewhere.

On June 20, the reliably nationalist Global Times ran an editorial in its digital and print editions opining that “unfortunately, the Wukan question may ultimately require a solution in accordance with law.” Netizens noted the curious phrasing; it sounded like a legal solution was being held out as a threat. Now Wukan’s villagers are seeing what that means. Perhaps, some mused, the crackdown was inevitable. “When [Wukan’s protests] happened a few years ago,” wrote one Weibo’er, “we knew this day would come.”

Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian contributed research.


David Wertime is a senior editor at Foreign Policy, where he manages its China section, Tea Leaf Nation. In 2011, he co-founded Tea Leaf Nation as a private company translating and analyzing Chinese social media, which the FP Group acquired in September 2013. David has since created two new miniseries and launched FP’s Chinese-language service. His culture-bridging work has been profiled in books including The Athena Doctrine and Digital Cosmopolitans and magazines including Psychology Today. David frequently discusses China on television and radio and has testified before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. In his spare time, David is an avid marathon runner, a kitchen volunteer at So Others Might Eat, and an expert mentor at 1776, a Washington, D.C.-based incubator and seed fund. Originally from Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, David is a proud returned Peace Corps volunteer. He holds an English degree from Yale University and a law degree from Harvard University.